Chicago-area industrialist George F. Getz Jr. and his wife, Olive Atwater Getz, were driving through Wilmette, Illinois, when they saw a broken-down fire truck on the side of the road.
George casually remarked he would like the 1924, Type 12 American La France fire engine. Considering the Globe Corp. chairman had everything, Olive surprised him with the old fire engine for Christmas in 1955.
The gift led to a hobby on his part of collecting antique and historic firefighting equipment. This resulted in his creating the Hall of Flame Museum of Firefighting, now located in Phoenix, in 1961. It houses the world’s largest collection of firefighting equipment and memorabilia.
“Somehow they kept it a secret from him,” says Mark Moorhead of the Hall of Flame Museum about George’s present.
“It was really, basically, intended as a gag gift, but he went nuts. He loved it. He gave the neighborhood kids rides in it. He just really became enamored of firetrucks. He started to collect more and more and more of them.”
He organized the National Historical Fire Foundation as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization to promote the museum’s programs.
The Hall of Flame Museum of Firefighting is one of the Valley’s best-kept secrets. After a stint in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, it opened its present building in Phoenix’s Papago Park in 1974.
The hall has grown from its original single gallery to five exhibit galleries, the National Firefighting Hall of Heroes, the museum store, a theater, a restoration shop, a collection storage building and administrative offices.
In its 70,000-square-foot space are 130 wheeled pieces and thousands of smaller artifacts.
“We’re the largest historical firefighting museum in the world,” Moorhead says. “There are around 200 firefighting museums in the United States and quite a few in other countries as well. We have items from all over the world, really, to trace the social and technological history of firefighting.”
The museum tells the story from the bucket brigade to the 21st century.
“It’s like you see in the Western movies, when the church is on fire, for example,” he says about the bucket brigade. “You have the famous bucket brigade, where they pass up and down the line and the last person gets as close as he can to the fire, which usually isn’t very close. He tries to throw the bucket of water on it.
“It’s a terrible way to fight a fire, but it was all they had. As civilization developed and towns and cities got bigger, they had a lot of incentive to find a better way to fight fires in a more technological way.”
The oldest piece in the museum is from 1725—seven years before George Washington was born.
“This one is so old that it doesn’t have a good hose,” Moorhead says. “Instead of the last guy in line feebly throwing his bucket of water on the fire, he would pour it into a tub that held about 80 gallons of water.
“You’d have the crew guys on either side pumping it out, up and down.”
The water sprayed out of a rigid, brass pipe—a branch pipe—and it angled up so the firefighters didn’t have to get right on top of the fire. They could arc it through a front door or, perhaps, a porch window. They could also hose down trees, bushes and the neighbors’ houses.
“It wasn’t just your house that would burn,” Moorhead says. “Three or four of your neighbors’ houses could burn, or the whole city block. Whole towns were known to burn.
“It seems really primitive, but it was this huge leap forward over the bucket brigade. It’s essentially just a giant squirt gun, but it’s a pretty powerful squirt gun.”
From the old news to recent news—the Granite Mountain Hotshots are remembered in the museum. They were killed in the Yarnell Hill Fire, the sixth-deadliest American firefighter disaster and the state’s deadliest wildfire. The museum houses one buggy used to transport the hotshots on the last day of their lives.
“This is one of the few pieces that’s here that we don’t own,” Moorhead says. “This one belongs to the Los Angeles County Fire Museum. The vice president of that museum’s son died (in Yarnell).
“The vehicles sat in a city garage up in Prescott for a number of years. Then, they took them out to be in that movie (‘Only the Brave’). Finally, Prescott said they were going to sell it as surplus city property. This guy in LA didn’t want to see this stuff sold. So, he got an anonymous donor, who turned out to be the actor Randolph Mantooth, to donate $25,000. He put up a single bid of $25,000. We’ve had it for years, and we’ll probably have it for years more. If they ever build a museum of a facility of some kind in Prescott that would accommodate this, they’ll probably get it.”
Mantooth starred in the 1970s medical drama “Emergency!”
The Granite Mountain Hotshots exhibit is part of the National Firefighting Hall of Heroes, which opened in 1998. Other American firefighters who died in the line of duty are remembered, including those from 9/11. (Somber fact: “Saturday Night Live” comedian Pete Davidson’s father is pictured on a wall of 9/11 casualties.)
“We think we’re a real world-class facility,” Moorhead says. “The building isn’t fancy at all. It’s just a big warehouse, really.”
But what’s in it is worth the trip.
Hall of Flame Museum of Firefighting, 6101 E. Van Buren Street, Phoenix, 602.275.3473, hallofflame.org.